EVEN the Brazilians, the purest purveyors of the beautiful game, recognise that silk must be complemented by steel.

For every Romario or Bebeto in the 1990s, there was a Dunga; in the last World Cup, a pragmatic rather than romantic approach eventually held sway as Kleberson replaced Juninho.

So, in the muck and nettles of the First Division, Mick McCarthy knows he must blend graft with the smattering of craft in his team.

Mart Poom, inevitably, was the only talking point in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's tumultuous draw at Pride Park.

As the dust settled, Marcus Stewart's profligacy became of greater concern to those of a red and white persuasion.

But Pride Park illustrated that six weeks into the season, with Jason McAteer injured and Jeff Whitley out of favour, McCarthy has stumbled across the perfect midfield mix.

The Sunderland manager can hardly have wished for his four men in the middle to combine as well as they did at Pride Park.

Out wide, there was Thomas Butler and John Oster - both of whom were described as "very good" by McCarthy, even though Oster posed Derby far more problems.

And in the engine room, Paul Thirlwell and Colin Healy gave Sunderland a rock-solid platform from which to build.

They secured a steady stream of possession out to the flanks and up front, and defeat would have been harsher on them than almost anyone in a Black Cats shirt. Confronted by the wily Derby captain Ian Taylor, Thirlwell and Healy gave Sunderland a domineering presence in the heat of the battle.

So worried was Derby manager George Burley by Sunderland's ascendancy that he made a tactical substitution at half time to alleviate the problem.

His change worked, but only to a limited degree - Thirlwell and Healy were still among the most accomplished performers in the second half.

Thirlwell, so anaemic at times in the Premiership, has been a revelation this season. Healy has thus far just hinted at what McCarthy knows he can do.

McCarthy said: "I thought Colin Healy was top class, and the solidity Colin and Paul gave us allowed me to play with two wingers. One or two people might have wondered about the midfield pairing, but they were very disciplined."

Sunderland will create chances in Division One for as long as Oster is in the team and producing the form that caused consternation in the Derby rearguard. Like Thirlwell, he floundered in the Premiership, yet he is now playing at a level that suits his ability.

His early corner was headed over by Kevin Kyle; he then made a number of telling runs and crosses that should have put Sunderland out of sight by half time.

It was a difficult day for Marcus Stewart, however, and Derby took heart from the visitors' failure to convert their territorial dominance into goals.

But when Taylor scored in the dying stages, Sunderland did not fold; instead, they regrouped and through sheer willpower forced an equaliser. McCarthy said: "They're a great bunch of guys, as was proved against Crystal Palace last week.

"I think they got into the habit of losing last season, but that feeling and acceptance that you're going to get beat looks to me to have gone. Even at Stoke on Tuesday, when we were 3-1 behind and down to ten men, we were still going forward with a great attitude and work ethic."

McCarthy was angry that Derby's goal was allowed to stand, claiming that Junior had impeded Poom as he tried to reach Simo Valakari's corner.

Taylor muscled Healy out of the way to volley the ball home, but there was to be another, more remarkable twist.

In the third minute of stoppage time, and with Burley imploring the referee to blow the final whistle, Poom planted a firm header from Sean Thornton's flag-kick into the Derby net.

Result: Derby County 1, Sunderland 1.

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